Managing Stress in Early Recovery
Managing Stress in Early Recovery There is a clear relationship between stress & substance abuse.

Prolonged stress is one of many risk factors associated with addiction. This is partly because mood-altering drugs are fairly available. As well, our culture tends to promote “taking something” to help us calm down or relax.

For those in recovery from addictive disease, issues such as divorce or conflicts at home or work are often associated with increased stress and relapse. It is important to be aware of your overall stress level, but also to become aware of those stressors that are unique to you.

Stress symptoms

The symptoms of stress vary among individuals but fall into 4 categories:

  • Thoughts: self-criticism, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure
  • Feelings: anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, anger
  • Behaviors: increased or decreased appetite, “snapping” at friends, acting impulsively, persistent smoking, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, being more accident-prone, withdrawal from others
  • Physical symptoms: sleep disturbances, tight muscles, headaches, fatigue, cold or sweaty hands, back or neck problems, stomach distress, more colds and infections, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth

Suggestions for coping with stress

While everyone faces stress, it is important for those in recovery to find new ways to cope with it. If not, the risk of relapse is very high. Here are some suggestions:

  • Manage your time. One of the greatest sources of stress is over-commitment or poor time management. Develop healthy routines. Make a reasonable schedule for yourself and include time for 12-step meetings and other activities related to your recovery. Add some margin for days when everything goes awry.
  • Connect with the right people. Being by yourself is OK for short periods of time but early recovery requires that you attain a 12-step sponsor and meet regularly with people who care about you and support your recovery. Likewise, you will need to create some distance between yourself and those who do not fully support your recovery. Some of these people may be friends or co-workers who care about you, but don’t understand your addiction or why you must make some drastic changes in your life.
  • Talk it out. Bottled-up emotions increase frustration and stress. Share your feelings with your sponsor, pastor, rabbi, supportive friends and family members. If necessary, seek professional help.
  • Get physical. Physical activity plays a key role in both reducing and preventing stress. Physical activity can relieve tension, relax you and energize you. Find something you enjoy and make regular time for it. Running, walking, weight lifting, swimming, playing tennis and playing golf are all good options if you are fit enough for exercise. Talk with your doctor about any health concerns you have before starting an exercise program.
  • Eat well; sleep well. Well-rested and well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Like a car running low on gas, if you are running on fumes from lack of sleep or are not eating right, you will be less able to go the distance when dealing with stressful situations. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the acronym HALT to remind those in recovery that they should try to avoid becoming too:
    • hungry
    • angry
    • lonely
    • tired

    These factors have been shown to increase the risk of relapse. Also avoid consuming too much caffeine and sugar.

  • Get some gratitude. Early recovery is wrought with challenges and frustrations so it is easy to get negative. Commit to actively acknowledging the positive things in your life. People who purposefully embrace gratitude have less stress and depression than those who do not. Gratitude can raise your spirits and help you begin to see your life and recovery in a new, more balanced way.

If you need help coping with stress or substance abuse recovery, speak with a mental health professional.

By Drew Edwards, EdD, MS
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